Free Markets, Free People

Economy

Majority no longer blame Bush for economic woes

That’s primarily because the current administration has been in power 18 months, it has spent like there’s no tomorrow with borrowed funds and the economy is still in the tank. Most adults consider that more than enough time to do address the "inherited" problems and if not fix them, be on the road to doing so. But blaming the previous administration is no longer a viable option.

Forty-eight percent of likely voters blame Obama’s policies for the nation’s economic condition, compared to 47 percent who fault former President George W. Bush, according to Rasmussen Reports.

Although the difference is small and within the margin of error, the poll marks the first time in Obama’s presidency that more people blame him than Bush for the economy.

Obama’s 48 percent also shows a three percentage point increase over the past month, according to Rasmussen. As noted, the margin is small and within the margin of error but is, for the first time, against the Obama administration. More importantly, that’s the way it has been trending in past polls.

So essentially what you should expect to see, as the months pass and the unemployment rate remains high, GDP growth sluggish, consumer confidence down and businesses sitting on the side lines is more and more Americans coming to consider this mess the "Obama economy".

The White House has repeatedly tried to inoculate the president from economic blame with the message that Obama inherited a bad economy from Bush, and has made difficult, unpopular decisions to turn it around.

In a speech to the AFL-CIO, Obama made the case that the problems he faces are the result of Bush economic policies.

"We’re not going to go back to digging the hole," he said. "We’re not going to go back to the policies that took Bill Clinton’s surplus and in eight years turned it into record deficits."

Really?

That’s obviously not how the American people are seeing those policies and their effect.  There’s nothing in the Bush years that even approach the record deficits being piled (and projected) by this administration.

So that old song and dance seem to finally be getting old.  And it is surprising the White House is still trying to push it.  You’d think they’d understand that it was a perishable excuse and it has long since passed its expiration date.  And, as the poll indicates, people have grown tired of it and just don’t accept it as a reasonable excuse anymore.

Not that it will stop the "Blameshifter-in-Chief” and his henchmen from continuing to trot it out there at every opportunity.  Their problem is it just isn’t viable anymore.

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

Will a desperate Obama administration spring an "August surprise" for political gain?

James Pethokoukis is hearing the rumors of something which might put a number of you in the situation where you’re paying down your neighbor’s mortgage – all in the name of politics. I’ll let him explain:

Main Street may be about to get its own gigantic bailout. Rumors are running wild from Washington to Wall Street that the Obama administration is about to order government-controlled lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to forgive a portion of the mortgage debt of millions of Americans who owe more than what their homes are worth. An estimated 15 million U.S. mortgages – one in five – are underwater with negative equity of some $800 billion. Recall that on Christmas Eve 2009, the Treasury Department waived a $400 billion limit on financial assistance to Fannie and Freddie, pledging unlimited help. The actual vehicle for the bailout could be the Bush-era Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, a sister program to Obama’s loan modification effort. HARP was just extended through June 30, 2011.

Essentially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be the vehicles for this $800 billion bailout.  As mentioned above, the “$400 billion limit” for financial assistance to the two institutions was waived by Congress.  And, HARP has been extended.  The ability to do what Pethokoukis is hearing certainly exists.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the election this November isn’t shaping up well for Democrats.  And the administration knows that without the majority in the House and Senate, its agenda is dead.  As Pethokoukis points out, the midterms are expected to be a blood bath for Democrats and this sort of a move may be seen as a last hour way to change that outcome.  The GSEs (Freddie and Fannie) are about the only “levers” left for the White House to pull. And with the economy slowing and the President’s approval ratings tanking, those levers are looking mighty tempting:

The mortgage Hail Mary would be a last-gasp effort to prevent this [loss of House and working majority in Senate] from happening and to save the Obama agenda. The political calculation is that the number of grateful Americans would be greater than those offended that they — and their children and their grandchildren — would be paying for someone else’s mortgage woes.

And, of course, it would be a backdoor “stimulus” that many on the left think is needed.

It may not happen, but as pointed out, the rumors are pretty darn strong with Wall Street firms privately warning their clients it is a distinct possibility.  It would be an incredible move that, given the mood of the country, could backfire spectacularly if done.  But the political calculation may be that if Democrats are supposed to lose badly in November anyway, why not try.

The financial consequence?  Bah … we’re talking politics here, the “religion of the left”.  They’re likely to do whatever they think is necessary, consequences be damned.  And we’ll be left, as usual, holding the bag.

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

“Stimulus” an expensive bust

The so-called "stimulus", upon closer examination, looks like most government spending – excessive, poorly targeted, poorly monitored and not at all accomplishing what was intended.

Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain have issued a report that details some of the most dubious "stimulus" spending. That’s over and above the money that just disappeared after being sent to non-existent congressional districts and zip codes.

For instance:

$700,000 for a researcher to study improvised music. For a project on interactive dance, 44 percent of the money goes to "overhead."

The $1.9 million spent to photograph ants in foreign countries has created two jobs created so far. That’s better than other ant research stimulus projects: $451,000 has created one job,

$276,000 spent on another created six one-hundredths of a job, and the $800,000 spent on a different one created no jobs.

The $144,000 spent to study the behavior of monkeys on cocaine created four-tenths of a job. To study why monkeys respond to unfairness cost $677,000 – and has created no jobs yet – except maybe for the monkeys.

And my guess is that they will find that monkeys react to cocaine much the same way humans do. Of course the White House claims, most likely through some model in which they plug in a factor (something like x number of jobs are created when y dollars are spent), that 3 million jobs have been "created or saved". But at what cost? Note the amounts spent above to "create" each job. And then there’s the ironic side of the story:

In the state of Washington, another stimulus project may be hurting those it was designed to help. Construction began one year ago today in front of the Archery Bistro Restaurant. The owner says it’s shut off business like a fly in a bowl of soup. He’s had to stop serving lunch, close two days a week and, ironically, lay off 12 workers.

The "stimulus" has been an expensive bust.

What positions have been “created” are temporary at best and will disappear when the tax dollars run out.  Additionally, much of the money is consumed in bureaucratic overhead – certainly “saving” and perhaps expanding those non-productive jobs.

But as for “stimulating” the economy – well, look around.  As my mom used to say, “the proof is in the pudding”.

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

Quote of the day – why we’re not yet in a recovery edition

Yeah, I know, there are technical definitions of what constitutes a recession and a recovery.  But if you’re unemployed, underemployed or given up on finding a job, you find  none of those technical definitions unimpressive.

Anyway, this particular quote, in a nutshell, tells you why the “recovery” isn’t much to write home about:

Data released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis at the Commerce Department this morning shows that Americans earned a bit more, spent a bit less and saved more in June — all in line with economists’ expectations. Consumer spending drives about 60 percent of the economy, therefore, economists do not expect the recovery to take strong hold until American families feel secure enough and are earning enough to spend again. Unemployment, of course, remains a major drag on the economy.

So, while savings is good in general, it’s not good in a macro sense when you’re in a recession.  And, as the quote notes (and I frankly think the number is low) when 60% of the economy is driven by consumption, increased savings and less spending is not a good sign.  It’s all about confidence, and consumers simply aren’t feeling it.

That may be because of the last sentence which has my vote for the understatement of the year. 

The good news, however, is there was nothing, apparently, “unexpected” about these numbers.

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

Quote of the day – why we’re not yet in a recovery edition

Yeah, I know, there are technical definitions of what constitutes a recession and a recovery.  But if you’re unemployed, underemployed or given up on finding a job, you find  none of those technical definitions unimpressive.

Anyway, this particular quote, in a nutshell, tells you why the “recovery” isn’t much to write home about:

Data released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis at the Commerce Department this morning shows that Americans earned a bit more, spent a bit less and saved more in June — all in line with economists’ expectations. Consumer spending drives about 60 percent of the economy, therefore, economists do not expect the recovery to take strong hold until American families feel secure enough and are earning enough to spend again. Unemployment, of course, remains a major drag on the economy.

So, while savings is good in general, it’s not good in a macro sense when you’re in a recession.  And, as the quote notes (and I frankly think the number is low) when 60% of the economy is driven by consumption, increased savings and less spending is not a good sign.  It’s all about confidence, and consumers simply aren’t feeling it.

That may be because of the last sentence which has my vote for the understatement of the year. 

The good news, however, is there was nothing, apparently, “unexpected” about these numbers.

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

Wow – if this is "recovery", I’d hate to see "recession"

Tim "Turbo Tax" Geithner has an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, "Welcome to recovery".

No, really.

Or perhaps I should say that it is a litany of liberal talking points and just plain old fantasy. He has a list of indicators which he’d like you to believe prove we’re just around the corner from full recovery.

I don’t have the time to go through all of them, as much as I’d like too, but a couple caught my eye. For instance, jobs:

Private job growth has returned — not as fast as we would like, but at an earlier stage of this recovery than in the last two recoveries. Manufacturing has generated 136,000 new jobs in the past six months.

That’s just nonsense on a stick. If your best example is a major economic sector which may be adding 23,000 jobs a month, you haven’t much to crow about. Not when you look at the jobs that are going away each month. The reports are not good and pretending they are doesn’t impress anyone and makes what little credibility you might still retain suspect.

And this:

The auto industry is coming back, and the Big Three — Chrysler, Ford and General Motors — are now leaner, generating profits despite lower annual sales.

That’s either a flat out lie or it’s from a second set of books.

e21 points out that if you analyze the auto industry, the news is not good:

The auto companies are certainly not out of the woods yet.  There has been a massive rebuild of negative working capital balances at GM (and Ford).  What does that mean?  Well, working capital is current assets minus liabilities – and it’s a good way to measure whether a company has the liquid assets to grow or build the business (and add shareholder value).  Positive working capital is also a useful measure for gauging a company’s financial resilience.  Negative working capital, on the other hand, means that current liabilities exceed assets – and a firm in this situation can’t spend as aggressively.

How massive is the “rebuild of negative working capital?”  Massive:

07292010_detroit

Those are monthly figures (GM’s only from Jul 09 when it emerged from bankruptcy).  There’s nothing in those figures that makes any sort of case that the companies are turning a profit.  In fact, if you look at what e21 says, it is clear that they’re still doing what got them into the shape they were in previous to the financial downturn.

Certainly their position hasn’t been helped by slow auto sales (even during the “recovery”), but what all of them could use is some investment help.  Ford could possibly get it but it is also possible investors are not likely to risk their capital on an industry that has a government presence.  Again e21 explains:

The roughshod methods that were used against bondholders in the bailout, the questionable methods used to pick winners and losers in the rush to close thousands of auto dealerships and the favorable treatment given to the unions (followed by the codification of this policy in the Orderly Liquidation Authority in the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill) serve as the case study for why investors and lenders will be skittish about lending or investing in U.S. companies that have a big union presence and/or would be deemed Too Big To Fail by the government.

And then there’s all the money they owe under TARP.

Like I said, just two of the many examples which are pure fiction.

The rest of his article is an attempt to write a favorable history of the government’s effort – but those who watched it and assessed its results aren’t particularly impressed.  Geithner ends his ramble with this:

And as the president said last week, no one should bet against the American worker, American business and American ingenuity.

No one should be at war against any of those either, yet this administration has been at war with the financial industry, the energy industry and business in general from it’s first day in office.   Perhaps it is time for a little internal administration introspection – honest introspection – with the aim of determining whether they’re part of the problem of part of the solution.  If they actually did that, they’d have to honestly assess themselves as part of the problem.  Geithner’s fantasy piece is all the proof you’ll ever need to know that will never happen.

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

What part of “production” don’t these people get?

In today’s NY Times, Robert Schiller laments the lack of jobs brought by the “stimulus”.  Essentially, he posits, government focus is on the wrong thing.  Instead of boosting the GDP, the “stimulus” should be focused on creating jobs.  And where should government be focusing that effort?

Why not use government policy to directly create jobs — labor-intensive service jobs in fields like education, public health and safety, urban infrastructure maintenance, youth programs, elder care, conservation, arts and letters, and scientific research?

Would this be an effective use of resources? From the standpoint of economic theory, government expenditures in such areas often provide benefits that are not being produced by the market economy. Take New York subway stations, for example. Cleaning and painting them in a period of severe austerity can easily be neglected. Yet the long-term benefit to businesses from an appealing mass transit system is enormous. (This is an example of an “externality,” which the market economy, left to its own devices, will neglect.)

The problem with this idea, of course, is nothing is really produced.  In fact, the focus on kicking up the GDP isn’t the wrong focus.  And trying to produce make-work jobs or “service” jobs don’t help with that.  They certainly would keep those who got the jobs busy, but a clean subway will not lead to more jobs elsewhere.

The tendency to think like this is apparent among a certain set who believe that spending money on jobs, whatever the sector and whatever the labor, make a difference.   A job is a job is a job.

But it isn’t.  Government jobs are not jobs that “produce wealth”.  They consume wealth.  And they don’t certainly don’t produce jobs that do produce wealth.

That comes in the private sector where people produce things – to include services – that other people want and that old “voluntary exchange of value between two people” takes place and produces wealth, which in turn kicks up the GDP.

It is wrong-headed to think the government can “stimulate” employment by employing people in non-productive, busy work jobs.

If government has a role in a recession or depression it should be to clear the way with less regulation and provide the incentives through tax breaks for businesses to hire and expand. 

What is hold all of this up at the moment is the unsettled tax picture and regulation regime as well as new legislation the business world is still trying to digest and pending legislation which would further complicate recovery.  It isn’t rocket science.  Until the marketplace is much more settled than it is now, no jobs are going to be created and now businesses are going to expand.

You can paint and clean all the subway systems in the US and it won’t make any difference.  The mid-term elections, however, may.  If the GOP takes the House and closes the gap in the Senate, you may start to see some hiring and some expansion, based on the belief that the worst is over  – governmentally that is – and perhaps it is now safe to begin the long, slow process of recovery.

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

Bush tax cuts – it’s not your money, so quit whining

William Gale regales us with what he calls "Five myths about the Bush tax cuts" , in the Washington Post today.

Highlights, or lowlights if you will, of a couple of them are as follows.  “Myth” one:

Extending the tax cuts would be a good way to stimulate the economy.

And the ammo that makes it a myth:

According to the Congressional Budget Office and other authorities, extending all of the Bush tax cuts would have a small bang for the buck, the equivalent of a 10- to 40-cent increase in GDP for every dollar spent.

So a 10% to 40% increase in GDP – at this time – is something to sniff at?  Note how he worded the increase.  He used the word “cent” instead of “percent”.  Yeah, no attempt to shade the point at all, huh?

Then this:

As the CBO notes, most Bush tax cut dollars go to higher-income households, and these top earners don’t spend as much of their income as lower earners.

Right.  A) they’re the ones who actually pay taxes – many lower income earners do not.  B) “Spending” is a loaded term.  The high income earners don’t bury their money in the back yard safely tucked into a coffee can.  They invest it.  And, for those paying attention, it is investment in the economy that’s lacking at this time.

The rest of the “myths” are as pathetically argued as the first.

In reality, this is just another in a long line of liberal justifications for taking your money based in the premise that it isn’t really yours to begin with.

If you don’t believe me, look at “myth” 3 which states “Making the tax cuts permanent will lead to long term growth.  Gale says:

A main selling point for the cuts was that, by offering lower marginal tax rates on wages, dividends and capital gains, they would encourage investment and therefore boost economic growth. But when it comes to fostering growth, this isn’t the whole story. The tax cuts also raised government debt — and higher government debt leads to higher interest rates.

Note that Gale tacitly admits that the "myth" is actually true. However he tries to caveat that with a horrible result that I assume he believes effectively destroys the point. The tax cuts “raised” government debt.

Uh, no, they didn’t. Excessive government spending without the revenue raised government debt. These tax cuts have now been in place for years and government debt has grown exponentially. How is that the fault of a tax cut or the tax payer?

Of course it’s not – unless you believe that money, all money, really belongs to government and it gets to decide how much you can or can’t have. How else do you claim allowing an earner to keep more of what he earned as a cause for "increased government debt?"

Of course Gale forgets one of the aspects of letting the tax cuts expire – but I suppose that’s because it’s not a "myth" in his book. A recent study finds the following to be true as a result of letting the Bush tax cuts expire:

The study found that raising just the lowest income tax rate from 10 percent to 15 percent would cost 88 million taxpayers an average of $503 next year.

Lowering the child tax credit from $1,000 to $500 per child would cost 31 million families an average of $1,033 in 2011; the reinstatement of the so-called marriage penalty, a peculiarity in the tax code that forces some married couples to pay more for income tax than they would if they were single, would cost 35 million couples an average of $595 each, according to the preliminary numbers.

[…]

Income tax rates will rise for almost every bracket, with the bottom rate going from 10 to 15 percent and the top rate going from 35 percent to 39.6 percent. Dividends and capital gains taxes also are expected to rise.

So the “your taxes won’t increase by a single dime” pledge for the gullible 95% was a crock and they should have known that when Obama promised to end those tax cuts.  But it’s hard to do that when you’re also gulled into believing that they were only tax cuts “for the rich”.

In fact, they were across the board tax cuts and now the middle-class will discover that at the end of the year as they crank up the Turbo Tax and are shocked, shocked I tell you, that their taxes have increased.

And that’s no myth, my friend.

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

People who live in glass houses…

When you accuse someone of stupidity, it’s probably wise to avoid saying something stupid yourself while doing so.  Sadly, E.J. Dionne fails to avoid that trap.

Our discussion of the economic stimulus is another symptom of political irrationality. It’s entirely true that the $787 billion recovery package passed last year was not big enough to keep unemployment from rising to over 9 percent.

But this is not actually an argument against the stimulus. On the contrary, studies showing that the stimulus created or saved up to 3 million jobs are very hard to refute. It’s much easier to pretend that all this money was wasted, although the evidence is overwhelming that we should have stimulated more.

Very hard to refute?  That’s nonsense on stilts.  Mr. Dionne may be so smart that rays of light emanate from his brow, but the paragraph above is an extraordinarily foolish position.

First, any statement of any jobs “created or saved” requires that we perform the impossible task of modeling how the economy would have performed in an alternate universe where a different policy mix was applied. We literally have no idea–nor any way to construct a testable hypothesis–that models how the economy would have reacted in the absence of the stimulus.  Even the Congressional Budget Office, while rather supinely delivering a report that ostensibly supported the administrations claims about job creation, was careful to note:

…it is impossible to determine how many of the reported jobs would have existed in the absence of the stimulus package.

Second, the methodology was extremely suspect.  In making its predictions of post-stimulus recovery, the administration simply plugged in an assumption about the multiplier effect of government spending.  They assumed that X amount in spending would result in Y% increase in aggregate demand, resulting in Z jobs.  What the CBO did in checking up on that prediction, was to plug essentially the same assumptions into their model, which, unsurprisingly, “confirmed” the predictions. Even the CBO seemed a bit embarrassed about that.

But the CBO, to its credit, has been fairly forthcoming about its methods and their limitations. In response to a question at a speech earlier this month, CBO director Doug Elmendorf laid out the CBO’s methodology pretty clearly, describing the his office’s frequent, legally-required stimulus reports as “repeating the same exercises we [aleady] did rather than an independent check on it.” CBO tweaks its models on the input side, he says—adjusting, for example, how much money the government has spent. But the results the CBO reports—like the job creation figures—are simply a function of the inputs it records, not real-world counts.

Following up, the questioner asks for clarification: “If the stimulus bill did not do what it was originally forecast to do, then that would not have been detected by the subsequent analysis, right?” Elmendorf’s response? “That’s right. That’s right.”

In other words, the CBO’s regular, legally-mandated reports, are estimates based on an economic model that doesn’t actually take inputs from the real world. They simply take the same estimates the administration used to create their predictions, then apply them to the monthly spending report, coming up with a number of jobs “created or saved” that is, unspurprisingly, exactly what the administration predicted.

Please note: this has no actual relationship to the number of real-world jobs that exist.  The only thing the CBO reports prove–by its own admission–is that it is possible to replicate the administration’s predictions by  duplicating the assumptions.

So, not only is it untrue, as Mr Dionne asserts, that “studies showing that the stimulus created or saved up to 3 million jobs are very hard to refute,” the CBO director explicitly refutes that notion by agreeing that “[i]f the stimulus bill did not do what it was originally forecast to do, then that would not have been detected by the subsequent analysis.”

But, let us say, arguendo, that Mr. Dionne is right, and the $787 billion did, in fact, create 3 million new jobs.  The price tag then, comes to $262,333.33 for each job created. That seems like a relatively steep price.

Happily, we know more or less precisely how many people are employed in the country, and how the size of the labor force has changed. We know this, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases those figures on a monthly basis, and they are publicly available at the BLS web site.  If we assume March 2009 to be the first month of the stimulus, we see that there were a total of 140,854,000 Americans over the age of 16 employed, including farm employment.  As of Jun, 2010, there were 139,119,000 Americans working. That tells me that there are 1,735,000 fewer Americans working today, than there were when the stimulus was passed.  If we exclude agriculture, and look at only non-farm payrolls, we see that there were 132,070,000 people employed in March, 2009, vice 130,470,00 in June, 2010.  Again, that’s a net loss of 1,600,000 payroll jobs.

I’m not seeing any net job creation there.

In at least one sense, though, Mr. Dionne is quite right.  Since the administration’s claims of 3 million jobs “created or saved” is empirically disprovable, they can tout them as much as they’d like, even in the face of 1.6 million jobs actually disappearing under the stimulus.  After all, they can always say, “There would have been 3 million fewer jobs if we hadn’t acted.  And if you don’t believe me, prove me wrong!”  It is, after all, so comforting to be able to take refuge in an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

California’s fiscal crisis provides a stark look at the difference between today’s left and right

The situation in California is critical with government there facing a 19 billion dollar shortfall and the budget yet to be passed. It pits an admittedly "moderate" Republican governor against a Democratically dominated legislature and their differences on how to close that huge budgetary hole.

The lack of a budget is forcing furloughs and the possibility of the state again issuing IOUs instead of payments to vendors, etc.

Until the governor and legislature negotiate that budget, not much will change. And the fight is classic:

Schwarzenegger has proposed slashing spending to balance the state’s books, an approach rejected by Democratic lawmakers. Their leaders in the state Senate and Assembly are trying to draft a joint plan likely to include proposals for tax increases to rival the governor’s budget plan.

There it is. Where the governor sees government as having to yeild and reduce itself, the legislature views government – at the size and scope it now occupies – to be a nonnegotiable necessity and entitled to more taxpayer cash to preserve it as is.

Funny that the "conservative" position in this fight – i.e. the attempt to maintain the status quo – is that of the "progressive" party in California.

However, the cut spending/more taxes fight is, in a nutshell, the difference between the two parties right now.  I used to say there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two (and on many issues that’s still true) but in terms of how to balance a budget, the “reduce government/ reduce spending” approach seems to now be solely owned by the GOP.

Whether or not they’ll actually do that should they again find themselves in the position of power to do so is obviously another question entirely. 

In the case of the Democratic party – they’re now a wholly owned subsidiary of government unions, and their pandering to these unions is both short-sighted and destructive.  The party that used to be able to claim the mantle of the working man’s party is now almost exclusively the government union worker’s party.  And of course that means keeping government large and well funded.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this fight comes out – but even with Schwarzenegger representing the GOP side of things, it is clear which side is the taxpayer’s friend.

~McQ

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]